Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Feathered Edge: Desire and Demons in Renaissance Florence

Last year I began this series on "the stories behind the stories" in this anthology of marvelous fantasy stories I was privileged to edit. I got about halfway through when life in the form of writing deadlines intervened. So I'm going to repost them and hopefully finish the series, then put them together in a companion volume. to The Feathered Edge.

Italy has some of the most romantic and mysterious cities in the world, and I was delighted when Jay Lake and Shannon Page sent me a story set in the Renaissance Florence.

Florence, by Thermos
Venice, by Paolo da Reggio
My own adventure began in 1991, when I was living in France. We used our children’s spring break to visit Italy, and that meant Florence and Venice. These places overwhelmed me with a sense of being not quite in the same reality as other places I’d been. I was accustomed to living near water (having come from Venice, California -- all right, just across the street from the Venice city line), but not the pervasive sense of dark, fluid depths underlying every building and every walkway, nor the atmosphere of age and history, or the constant reminders of private lives – of secrets – behind those shuttered windows and doors. Whether strolling through the piazzas or over one of the many bridges, or riding in a gondola, or sitting in a café, I felt myself surrounded by stories. I remember the moment of awe when I stepped out into the plaza of the ghetto (the original ghetto, after which all others are named). There isn’t much to see, just a well-swept space surrounded by tourist shops; it’s not what I saw but what I felt, century upon century of hope and despair, of huddled safety and wellsprings of determination.

A tourist brochure, perhaps from the city of Venice itself, I can’t remember now, featured images from carnevale. One of these was the famous character, Bauta. This costume consists of a unadorned white mask, flared at the bottom where the mouth should be, a black tricorned hat, and a black cloak. It is impossible to tell if the person wearing it is old or young, man or woman, rich or poor – a true disguise for that brief time of merry-making when such distinctions no longer hold sway. In the publicity image, indirect, diffuse lighting cast the figure in mysterious shadows. You can see something of what it looked like here.
Or here.

Oh my, I thought. Story material.

When I returned to the US, I pinned the picture on my bulletin board beside my computer. Although I worked on other projects, my eyes kept drifting back to this enigmatic, slightly menacing figure. I had a chance to take some of those shivers and weave them into a story when I was invited to submit to an anthology of historical fantasy, Ancient Enchantresses, edited by Kathleen M. Massie-Ferch. I based my story, "Unmasking the Ancient Light," on the life of Dona Gracia Nasi, one of the most extraordinary Jewish women of the Renaissance. My friend Bauta did not put in an appearance in my story, but furnished a wealth inspiration for an ancient, brooding menace.

Then, as I was reading stories for The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring, I opened the one Jay and Shannon had sent me and read:

Firenze, 1498

I peered around the rough-edged corner of the Palazzo Martelli, searching down the long, night-shadowed lane but seeing nothing save the muddy path to the river Arno below. The Ponte Vecchio glimmered in the distance, lit by a single torch at the near end.

Palazzo Martelli, by sailko
Oh my. Italy, again!

And what a marvelous time this is! Florence is ancient and brooding, but infused with the vigor of magic, of a living, working city, not a vacation destination. This is not the Florence of picture postcards and tourist brochures. Dangerous things lurk in waters, and watch you from the rooftops…and behind the gaity and mercantile riches, a battle is being waged, one whose stakes are hearts as well as souls. Jay and Shannon weave the vivid details into an erotic tale of desire, sorcery, and power.

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